Greg King is the author of “The Fate of the Romanovs” and “Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs.”
By the time he abdicated the Russian throne in March 1917, Czar Nicholas II was a pariah. There was his disastrous war with Japan in 1904; the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre, when Czarist troops shot down unarmed workers; years of pogroms; and the catastrophe of World War I. Relatives warned of impending disaster and whispered of a possible coup. And his wife, Empress Alexandra, had become the most hated woman in Russia. Her political interference, autocratic views and embrace of the notorious Rasputin had damaged the prestige of the Romanov dynasty at home; abroad, many Allied governments wrongly thought that she sympathized with her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II. A man who couldn’t say no to his wife, and a woman viewed as a criminal lunatic: No wonder, when revolution came, no one wanted anything to do with the Romanovs.
Nicholas and Alexandra belonged to an extended network of ruling royal cousins, yet as Helen Rappaport points out in “The Race to Save the Romanovs,” the idea of granting asylum to the former Russian imperial family sent collective shudders through palaces across Europe. The problems were obvious: how to get them out of revolutionary Russia, how to pay for their upkeep, and how to deal with the political and social baggage accompanying their exile. A deep dive into archives and obscure sources, Rappaport’s book exposes the feckless and ultimately futile ideas to rescue the imprisoned Romanovs that surfaced between Nicholas’s abdication and the family’s murder in the summer of 1918. What she found is “a tale of intriguing personal family relationships; internal and international political rivalries and prejudices; the vagaries of geography and the weather, and the logistical difficulties created by them; and, at its most basic level, a story of plain bad timing.”
In unraveling her story, Rappaport examines the various players: Russian monarchists, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the Danish royal family and fumbling diplomats. The efforts by Nicholas’s former subjects were the most ill-considered: a handful of haphazard plots to rescue the Romanovs led by bungling and possibly dishonest partisans who seemed more intent on laying their hands on any Czarist fortune than helping the prisoners. None worked together, and rivalries and inept planning led to nothing.
Much of the book focuses on the action — and inaction — of King George V; indeed, one gets the sense that Rappaport’s intent is to rehabilitate the man often blamed for refusing to grant sanctuary to his Russian cousins. She chronicles the well-known story: how the British government offered the Romanovs asylum, and how the king became increasingly worried that their presence would lead to demonstrations against his own throne. “From the first,” his private secretary Lord Stamfordham confided, “the King has thought the presence of the Imperial Family (especially the Empress) in this country would raise all sorts of difficulties.” He feared that the exiled Romanovs “would undoubtedly compromise” his position. George pestered the Foreign Office with letter after letter until it finally caved to royal pressure and let the invitation wither away.
There is no doubt that Stamfordham exaggerated the possible political dangers; aside from a few isolated rallies and newspaper articles, there was no great groundswell of British public opinion against the idea of asylum. But paranoia there certainly was: Fearing a republican backlash, the king changed the name of his royal house from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the solidly English Windsor in the summer of 1917. Although there are hints about some later mysterious plots possibly backed by the British in 1918, such efforts came to nothing. In the end, even Rappaport has to agree that George “may have been a moral coward” in forcing his government to abandon asylum.
Scattered attempts by Danish diplomats and overtures made too late by King Alfonso of Spain went nowhere; after the brutal execution of the imperial family, King George blamed his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, he asserted, might have saved them if he “had only lifted a finger on their behalf.” This retrospective passing of the royal buck wasn’t fair: Although Rappaport plays down the kaiser’s efforts, Wilhelm did make several attempts to save the former ruling family — and at a time when, unlike George’s, his country was at war with Russia. Even after signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Lenin, the kaiser continued negotiations on behalf of the empress and her daughters.
Rather than blaming King George for forcing his government to withdraw asylum, Rappaport’s finely researched and elegantly written book asserts that “responsibility should be more widely, and equally, apportioned.” It’s a fair point. “The Race to Save the Romanovs” ends by asserting that even had asylum come, the “Imperial Family almost certainly would have refused to leave Russia under any circumstances, preferring to die together in the country they loved.” In fact, within days of his abdication, Nicholas and Alexandra were quietly sorting their belongings and packing in anticipation of an English exile that would never come, thanks to their mutual British cousin.
By Helen Rappaport
St. Martin’s. 372 pp. $28.99